Friendly debates with “mad libs”

Levels: intermediate to advanced.
Ages: teens; adults.
Type: fun and informal debates focussing on polite turn-taking, interrupting, agreeing, disagreeing, giving opinions and expressing doubts.
Skills: listening; speaking; pronunciation (emphasis).
Language focus: vocab – polite turn-taking, interrupting, agreeing, disagreeing, giving opinions and expressing doubts.

cut-up slips of paper (enough for three per student);
this vocab sheet, one per student.


  1. Show the slips of paper to your students. Explain you’ll ask them to write the name of one object in the world – anything they like – on each slip of paper. Give some examples to help them – e.g., potato, shoe, bottle, string – and elicit that it’s one per bit of paper. Then give out the paper, three per student.
  2. After most students have written three objects, collect the slips. Group your students into twos or threes, making sure there is an even number of groups in your class.
  3. Invite one member of each student to take one, written-on slip of paper. Make sure all the objects are different.
  4. Board “Which is the greatest benefit to humanity?“. Nominate a group (or just spin your pen to choose one) and ask them for the name of their object. Board the name. Ask another group for theirs, and board it next to the first (e.g., “bran flakes v windows“).
  5. Do the same with the other groups, two at a time, until you have a list of debates on the board.
  6. Explain the rules of the game, and its purpose: groups will have three minutes to argue why their object is better (more useful, more beautiful, and so on) for humanity than their opponents’; and by the end of the lesson, your students should be better able to express their opinions, politely interrupt, agree and disagree with others, and politely express doubts about other people’s opinions.
  7. Board a table with three rows: (1) the arguments; (2) emphasis; (3) language. Go through the meanings of these terms as necessary (“the arguments” means the quality of the arguments used by each team, irrespective of the listener’s opinions about who is right; “emphasis” means use of pauses, inflection, stress, and so on, in order to convince the listener; and “language” means the quality of the English used in the debate – is the vocabulary good? Is it appropriate? etc.)
  8. Ask listening students to give each speaker a mark out of five for each of these three things, and then to decide together who has “won” the debate.
  9. Elicit that each debate will last for three minutes, that teams may interrupt each other at the end of a speaker’s sentence, and that all students should speak. You may like to allow each group three minutes to prepare their arguments beforehand. Then start the first debate, between the first two groups on your board.
  10. Make your own notes, or give your own scores, to each of the speakers, and stop the debate after three or four minutes. After the first debate, ask the listening students to briefly confer with their teams. What marks did they give each speaker? Who won, in their opinion? While the listeners are conferring, you can ask the speakers how they feel they performed, and what they might do differently next time.
  11. Get feedback for each speaker from the listening students, and find out who they think won the debate. Give your own feedback and opinions, too.
  12. If you have a small-ish class (e.g., only two more groups of students), repeat the procedure, this time with the former listening students as speakers and the former speakers as listeners and mark-conferers. Otherwise, skip to the language input stage below.
  13. Language input: Board the following headings on the board, with enough space under each one for some more sentences: asking for opinions, giving opinions, politely interrupting, agreeing, disagreeing, expressing doubts. Ask your students what language they can remember hearing, or would like to have heard, under each of these headings. Allow them a minute to discuss this in their groups.
  14. Give out the “Functional Language” vocab sheet (see above – “preparation”) and ask students how many of these expressions they had thought of. If time, drill the pronunciation of (some of) these expressions, or ask students to order them from least to most emphatic and give some feedback on their efforts.
  15. Swap the groups’ debaters, so they each have a new debating foe. Ask them to choose some of the language from the sheet which they’d like to use in their new debate.
  16. If time, repeat the procedure as above, only this time awarding a point for each correct use of an item from the “Functional Language” sheet. If time is short, put the groups together and monitor their discussions, writing any notes.
  17. Give feedback – both on language and pronunciation – either at the end of this lesson, or at the start of the next.

Acknowledgements: this idea comes from Keep Talking by Friederike Klippel, which I’ve lightly supplemented with some vocabulary work adapted from International Express Intermediate and this excellent online resource from

One thought on “Friendly debates with “mad libs”

  1. Thanks so much, this is a really comprehensive and detailed lesson plan- and a unique way to approach a debate. In particular, the fact that it will invariably throw up humorous arguments is a real bonus for the students enjoyment. I’m going to use it today in fact.

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